Learning Spanish On Your Own? Start by Picking a Country

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Many commercially sold Spanish self-study courses offer two distinctly different versions of their product: 1) Peninsular Spanish (The Spanish spoken in Spain and also known as Castellano, and 2) Latin American Spanish (basically, every other Spanish speaking country lumped together in one category).

This “lumping together” can lead to students becoming frustrated and discouraged when learning Spanish because they are constantly bombarded with conflicting information. You will learn one thing from your Cuban friend and when you repeat it to your Mexican friend, he tells you you’re wrong. This pattern tends to repeat itself over and over.

The fact is that Spanish differs significantly from country to country in terms of pronunciation, word preference, word meaning, idiomatic expressions, and of course, slang.

That’s why I tell everyone who is interested in learning the language to pick a country and focus on learning the Spanish spoken there.

Differences in Vocabulary

I’m not a native Spanish speaker but I do speak it fluently. I learned it on my own out of necessity while working as a deputy sheriff in Central Florida. The area where I worked had a substantial Mexican population (over 50,000 people) and many did not speak English. As a result, my Spanish is very Mexican.

My wife, Linda, is originally from Colombia and Spanish is her first language. When we first met, we would speak Spanish with each other but we often had very different words for the same thing. I would call the trunk of a car a cajuela and she would call it a baúl. She literally had a different word for everything from straw to store. I felt like I was learning a second foreign language.

Differences in Meaning

Even words that I knew and used on a regular basis at work would have a completely different meaning in Colombian Spanish. For example, to me, the word mono meant monkey but Linda uses it to mean blonde. In case you’re wondering, she uses mico for monkey.

There are numerous words that fall into this category, so you have to be careful. Some words that are common in one country can actually be considered vulgar in another. One example of this is the Spanish verb coger.

In Colombia, coger is a very common verb that is translated as “to take” or “to grab”. You would use it in sentences like: “I have to take the bus,” or “grab that.”

In many Latin American countries, including Mexico, the verb coger has a very different meaning. It is commonly used as a vulgar way to say “to have sex”.

In fact, if you look up this verb in the dictionary of the Real Academia Española (the leading authority in the Spanish language), you will find this definition along with a list of the countries where it is used that way:

31. intr. vulg. Am. Cen., Arg., Bol., Méx., Par., R. Dom., Ur. y Ven.: Realizar el acto sexual.

Several years ago, Linda and I were on vacation in Mexico and she used that word with a taxi driver. He started chuckling and the conversation turned to how differently that word is used in Mexico. The taxi driver then told us a joke about a Colombian who asks a Mexican where he can coger the bus. I’m sure you can imagine where this one is going.

I would love to post the whole joke here — because it’s pretty funny — but I think it’s a bit too risque for this site. However, if you happen to run into me at a beach bar, ask me to tell it to you.

Let’s Wrap This Up

So, what does all this mean? It means that if you’re thinking about making Mexico your home then you should get a Mexican Spanish teacher or tutor. I know that your Argentinian tutor might try to talk you out of making the change, but be strong!

If you think about it, it really makes sense. After all, if a native Spanish speaker told you that he or she wanted to learn English and move to the U.S., would you recommend that they get a good English tutor from Scotland? Of course not.

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About the Author

Qroo Paul
Paul Kurtzweil (Q-Roo Paul) was a deputy sheriff in Florida for 25 years before retiring at the rank of lieutenant in 2015. He and his wife moved to Mexico looking to maximize their retirement income. They later started a blog called Two Expats Mexico (qroo.us) to share their experiences as well as information about the logistical and legal aspects of retiring south of the border.